The omnibus edition of Anne McCaffrey’s first three Pern novels that I’ve included a picture of is seven years my elder meaning it was published in 1978. I came across it some time ago, nearly a decade, at a used book fair and enjoyed it enough to purchase the better part of the subsequent series. It is a fantasy genre novel of a previous generation far removed from modern day epic fantasy novelists like Steven Erikson, George R. R. Martin or Robert Jordan.
The first novel, Dragonflight, was published in 1968. The novel is short, coming in at under 200 pages in my book, and needs to be as neither the plot nor the characters can support a length beyond that. Lessa, former nobility who survived the takeover of her family’s holdings and the purging of her line that followed, plots revenge against the greedy, regional overlord who killed her family. The inclusion of a female lead as the both a strong character as well as the heroine of the book would have been more noteworthy in 1968 than it is in modern literature.
Opposite Lessa is F’lar, the rider of a bronze dragon named Mnementh, who is on a search to find a suitable candidate to bond (the book uses the term impress) with a soon to hatch queen dragon. As a construct of the book, the dragons serve McCaffrey better than human characters. Intelligent, loyal and vividly anthropomorphized, the dragons of Pern are, perhaps, more human than their riders. The dragons express jealousy, distaste and temper in ways that the too perfect F’lar and Lessa fail to convey.
For those who enjoy the flawed characters developed by Martin or Erikson, F’lar and Lessa will certainly be offputting. McCaffrey’s writing is clearly a generation (or more) removed from her contemporaries and while the book can read as a wonderful trip back through time, the virtually flawless characters is too clean. The protagonists are worthy and attractive with nary an ugly person to be found that isn’t also of reprehensible moral character.
The plot is linear to the point of predictable. Lessa plots revenge. F’lar kills the evil regional overlord and then takes Lessa with him to bond with the new dragon. Lessa proceeds to save the entire planet from the natural disaster of “thread“, a creature that is spawned and falls from the sky when another celestial body, the Red Star, comes into close proximity to Pern.
The book reads better as part of the initial trilogy contained in the omnibus. (In fact, I read all three novels again before beginning to review the first.) F’lar and Lessa are holdovers into the second novel and are better for it as McCaffrey shows a defter, though still too kind, touch.
Clearly the most engaging aspect of the book is the world of Pern itself. Dragons are bonded to humans with telepathy-like abilities. The dragons can transport their riders both geographically and temporally. Together both dragons and riders fight the menace of thread, burning them in the sky.
Pern also evokes elements of a caste society in which the dragonriders are supreme and a feudal system of lords and holdings is employed alongside a quasi-autonomous set of skilled craft disciplines. (Pity the serfs who are never discussed or mentioned by the elite.) The promiscuity the book bestows upon the dragonriders is clearly a function of the era the writer was living.
Dragonflight is a quick and pleasant read that does a serviceable job establishing the framework for the novels that follow. If the reader is willing to contextualize the writing with the publication date, it evokes a sense of nostalgia for the genre prior to its current incarnation. Shallow characters and a perfunctory plot hold Dragonflight back from being more.
Rating: 2 out of 5